Subtle offseason has Pirates in good position
The Pirates will be a deeper and better team in 2015 than you might expect.
The Pittsburgh Pirates haven’t grabbed the baseball world’s attention with a flurry of trades this offseason, nor have they made a big splash in free agency. However, despite a lack of headline-grabbing moves, Pirates general manager Neal Huntington has set the club up for success next season. He did it in much the same way he shaped the organization into a perennial contender, making quiet but shrewd upgrades throughout the roster.
That trend continued on Monday when the Pirates won the bidding for Korean infielder Jung-ho Kang and added Corey Hart as a bench-bat on a one-year deal. Taken alone, neither player suddenly makes the Pirates a lock for the playoffs, but they do continue Huntington’s methodical work in adding depth to Pittsburgh’s roster.
Where Kang will fit in is something of a mystery, especially given Jordy Mercer’s solid work at shortstop during the last two years and the additions of utility players Sean Rodriguez and Pedro Florimon already this offseason. But initial word on Kang is that he has some intriguing power potential (he batted .356/.459/.739 with 40 home runs in the Korean Baseball Organization last season), and the Pirates likely have serious interest in him if they submitted the highest bid.
What Kang ultimately gives Pittsburgh is more options and security. The 27-year-old could play a little at shortstop, or shift over to third base at times and allow the versatile Josh Harrison to fill in elsewhere. Given Pedro Alvarez’s regression in 2014, Harrison or Kang could fill in at second base, with Neil Walker moving over to first if Alvarez again struggles.
Hart, too, will earn some at-bats. Although he didn’t impress with Seattle last year, the 32-year-old has always hit lefties well throughout his career, making him a solid platoon partner for Alvarez or others. Hart isn’t the only right-handed power hitter to see his production dip in Safeco Field, after all.
Considering Alvarez’s volatility, some of Walker’s injury problems, and the possibility that Harrison can’t replicate his breakout campaign, it’s not hard to see both Kang and Hart proving useful in the right roles for the Pirates. They bring an added layer of insurance at reasonable prices and give Huntington options if anyone under-performs or misses time through injury.
What you see when looking at Pittsburgh’s roster now is a club with few weaknesses and plenty of depth. Francisco Liriano will be back, and so too will A.J. Burnett, who should be an upgrade over Edinson Volquez — especially if Burnett can regain the form that saw him post a 3.41 ERA over two seasons with the Pirates in 2012 and 2013.
Add in the advantages that Pittsburgh generates from infield shifts and its tremendous outfield defense, and the Pirates look like good bets to be contending for the NL Central crown again in 2015. And of course there is always 28-year-old Andrew McCutchen, who won the NL MVP in 2013 and finished third in the voting in both ’12 and ’14.
What makes the Pirates even more intriguing as a contender is all their young talent on top of this depth. Gerrit Cole wasn’t completely healthy in 2014, but his pure stuff and his strong 2013 performance demonstrate how much potential he has. Gregory Polanco didn’t fare well in his first big league campaign, but he is only 23 and he tore through the minors. Breakout seasons from either Cole or Polanco will give the Pirates an even bigger boost.
All the buzz in the NL Central currently lies with the Cardinals and hard-charging Cubs. But Pittsburgh is no slouch either, and with all the quiet moves Huntington has made this winter and all the talent he has accrued in recent years, the Pirates are set up well to make another run at the postseason.